Ranajit Guha: An Epistemic Icon In The Field Of History

Ranajit Guha: An Epistemic Icon In The Field Of History
One of the hallmarks of the great scholarship is that it liberates one from epistemic prisons and rids them of received ways of looking at the order of things. Such a scholarship breaks our habits of thinking and helps forge a new personality out of the ruins of the older self. Thus, they become part of our soul. Ranajit Guha was one of the seminal figures in the discipline of history. He not only influenced myriad minds but also showed pathways to recover the self and society buried under the debris of grand labels of nationalist historiographies and projects in history. He helped establishing the first school of thought in the philosophy of history that emerged in a non-Western setting. Guha achieved this feat by immersing himself in the interdisciplinary debates in social sciences and humanities. It enabled him to emerge with the idea of subalternity in history.

Although Guha is not the sole founder of the Subaltern Studies Collective, he enacted a pivotal role in bringing diverse scholars of history on this collective platform. The founding members of the Subaltern Studies had been working in the domain of history, especially Indian, well before the establishment of the collective. However, their work was influenced by different schools of thoughts working under the theories underpinned by the philosophical discourse of modernity. The Cambridge School dominated Indian historiography in the post WWII period. Against this, there were attempts mostly by the Marxist historians to write history from below. However, writing from below is still informed by the meta-theory of Marxism that shined upon all that is mundane. In Pakistan, Dr Mubarak Ali’s works on history seem to be informed by the perspective that sees history from below.

Guha joined Communist Party of India (CPI) at a young age and rose to prominence among its cadre. He had a remarkable combination of scholarship and exposure to the communist societies and states in Europe and China. However, his dreams of a communist dawn were shattered when Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956. Similarly, he faced various setbacks at an academic level as his PHD research was turned down for its novel approach. Later his research was published with the title “A rule of Property for Bengal” in 1963. Finally, he settled in the United Kingdom in 1959, where he joined the University of Sussex, from where he retired in 1988. After his retirement, he continued his scholarly work for a long period.
Guha in his writings records the lifeworld of people who struggled against power by organising organic movements and relying on language and tools that do not fall within the prescribed conceptual remits of World-history and modernity

Historians associated with Subaltern Studies Group veered away from the dominant perspective in history to shape a new framework that can capture the historical movements and lifeworld of people who have been either left outside history or assigned to the dustbin of pre-history because they were not fulfilling epistemological criteria to have a history. Hence, the discipline of history has created its own dark continent that can only be illuminated by the managers of history. It means that there are certain societies in the world that can qualify to the pantheon of history, whereas the rest are left in darkness, groping around to find the light of a world history enunciated and institutionalised at epistemic sites and academic regimes respectively. It is this point from which Ranajit Guha launched a critique against the idea of world history epitomised by Aristotle and Hegel. This is evident in Guha’s seminal work, History at the Limit of World History.

Aristotle defines limit as “the first thing outside which there is nothing to be found and the first thing inside which everything is to be found.” It means that the limit determines the scope and limitations of our knowledge. When we define limits, then by default we become an authority to guard the boundaries. Thus, we enclose ourselves within the epistemic regime of that particular discipline. Guha ventures outside the limits to explore the unthought in the world history. Stating his position regarding the Aristotelian notion and functions of limit, Guha opines that the use of the word ‘limit’ in the title of his book History at the Limit of World History “may be understood as a signal of our attempt to explore the space beyond World-history. In other words, we shall try and think World-history in terms of what is unthinkable with its boundaries.” Guha’s approach to limit appears to be more influenced by Martin Heidegger. Unlike Aristotle, Heidegger defines limit or boundaries not as a confined space wherein thinking occurs – instead, he deems boundaries or limits as something where something does not stop. That is to say, a boundary is something where something new starts.

The new start is visible in Guha’s critique of Hegel and his work. Guha in his writings records the lifeworld of people who struggled against power by organising organic movements and relying on language and tools that do not fall within the prescribed conceptual remits of World-history and modernity. Hegel’s philosophy of history is defined by statism and elitism as he sees the emergence of great personalities on historical scenes as the continuation of heroes in Greek mythology. Hegel puts Chinese and Indian societies in the category of prehistory because they are the “nations whose consciousness is obscure,” or such nations have obscured history despite having great spiritual and literary works. Such notions are visible in the colonial historiography where it tends to look at the order of things through conceptual tools that declare some sections of society as “political” because they have tools and conceptual arsenal defined by modern discourse of political science while consigning the rest into the dustbin or the “pre-political.”

Ranajit Guha frees his thinking from the meta-vocabulary of the enunciators in the philosophy of history. This enables him to avoid dominant binaries in historical research and mine treasures unthought of by modernity – in the shape of the supernatural, mythology, popular beliefs and folklores. His explanation of the religious and the mythical proves not only the polysemous nature of the texts but also shows the fluid nature of meaning. Such multiplicity of meaning and fluidity breaks the colonial scholarship’s claim of religious texts and their reception in the East as stagnant. Bringing the supernatural or mythical within the ambit of a conceptual framework is by no means a small feat. It is a revolutionary step in epistemology, as it enables the societies in the dark continent of history to illumine their own history by resorting to intellectual resources within.

On a personal note, the reference to historical fragments pushed into the dark continent of written history has provided me a personal cue because the history of Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan is informed by the collective memory formed by oral forms of knowledge. It helped me to come out of the sense of infantile status of orality as compared to the written word on the one hand, and illumined historical paths that had been kept in darkness under the duress of written discourse on the other.

Sometimes when we speak about something, we actually conceal more. Similarly, the grand narratives of nationalist histories expunged certain sections from history to provide universality to a nation-building project. When Guha criticised Indian history as elitist, his critique does not stem from a struggle against the elites in India. Rather it is informed by his understanding of world history as a pattern, narrative or framework that tries to fix varied histories and historical fragments within the whole – which is labelled and academically institutionalised as world history. That is why subaltern history can be treated as a domain that neither originated from elite politics nor was its existence depended on the latter. In simple words, it is the history of fragments, not the whole.

The project of Subaltern Studies was elaborated and expanded by historians and scholars such as Ranajit Guha, Shahid Amin, David Arnold, Gyan Pandey, David Hardiman, Gayatri Spivak, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Partha Chatterjee. Though the founders and later the elaborators started from a unified purpose, their views diverged to expand in new directions. One of the criticisms levelled against the project of subaltern studies was from the feminist perspective, by a preeminent scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. In her seminal essay, Can the Subaltern Speak?, she criticised subaltern studies for ignoring experiences of the subaltern women. Guha took that criticism seriously and came up with his study “Chandra’s Death” – wherein he analysed the functions of power on sexuality. It was based on the real story of a Bengali woman who died while aborting a pregnancy conceived in an illicit relationship. In the context of Pakistan, we can explore how sexuality is controlled and managed by power relations in certain social settings.

Contrary to commonly held notions that critique endangers the theoretical unity of a particular approach, the critique of Guha by Spivak shows how it enables one to explore the unthought. In the intellectual exchange between two giants of historiography, Guha and Chakravorty, there is much to be learned for a country like Pakistan – where intellectual and cultural conversation has been marginalised by the polemics of populist intellectuals, wishy washy liberals, demagogic clergy, shallow anchors and ostentatious influencers and chattering podcastists. This does not mean that India does not have such people. In fact, it is also full of such figures. But it has also intellectuals like Ranajit Guha, Gayatri Spivak, Amartya Sen, Ashis Nandy, Homi K Bhabha, Romila Thapar etc. The presence of such figures on the intellectual scene provides a silver lining on the horizon which is engulfed by the dark forces of Hindutva. Unfortunately, in Pakistan such intellectuals are increasingly becoming a rarity. We now have only dark clouds.

Guha has not only provided an episteme for a certain school of thought in the discipline of history but also mentored scholars like Dipesh Chakrabarty and Partha Chatterjee. Amidst the cacophony of TV anchors, influencers on social media, gurus and sat gurus, muftis, molvis, motivational speakers, demagogues and merchants of hatred, our mind is in the danger of becoming sterile. Such sterility may result in our becoming either blind to the diverse forces operating in history or taking refuge in the messianism of modern populism.

In the age of Tariq Fatehs and Zaid Hamids, we need intellectuals like Ranajit Guha. After a long illustrious career and fruitful life, Guha breathed his last on 29 April 2023 at the age of 99. May his ideas repose eternally in our mind and his soul in eternal peace.

The writer has a background in social philosophy with a focus on the history of ideas and the sociology of margins.